IT was the year 1990. A kid in the district of Munger, Bihar, saw the first signs of a disease that was to haunt him for years to come. Soon began the ostracism – first by the family, then by the village. Twenty nine years later, Manoj*, now 43, stoically remembers the time he was first diagnosed with leprosy – a time when, for him, to dream of death felt better than to wake up to life.
“I was in the tenth standard. It was soon after I was diagnosed that everyone in the village started shunning me.” Three years later, Manoj* came to Delhi for his treatment. That is when he first heard about the Home for Leprosy and TB Affected Beggars (HLTB) by fellow patients.
“It was simple, I was told. All I had to do was to beg in front of a temple or a gurudwara. So I did. The van came and picked me up. I was presented in front of the magistrate, who sent me here, the home.”
The HLTB, located in the leper colony of Tahirpur, Delhi, was one of the eleven statutory institutions being run by the Delhi government under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 – the anti-beggary law extended to Delhi in the year 1960.
Under the Act, anyone found “begging” can be arrested without a warrant by either a police officer or anyone authorised in this behalf. Post a trial in any court exercising criminal jurisdiction in the area, the arrested person can either be released on a bond or be detained in a “beggar home” for a period ranging between one year and three years. The HLTB in Delhi was one such home, established in 1962 for beggars afflicted with leprosy and TB. Twenty five years back, it was under this law that Manoj* was arrested.
The Bombay Act – similar to the beggary laws applicable in many other states – was subject to fierce criticism for being in violation of the fundamental rights of the poor. A number of human rights activists have noted multiple cases where the local administration uses these laws to harass the poor and the homeless.
So, last year in August, when the Delhi High Court struck down several provisions of this law in Delhi as unconstitutional, the judgment was mostly met with praise and welcome. The main provisions of the Bombay Act were declared as “manifestly arbitrary” and against the mandate of Article 21 of the Constitution which guarantees citizens right to live with dignity and with the necessities of life required for it. The judgment also noted that all prosecutions under the Act were liable to be struck down.
Also read: A positive beginning: Delhi High Court’s decision decriminalising begging is a step in the right direction
Soon afterwards, the HLTB started phasing out its inmates. Over the next few months, many inmates were set free, only to languish on the streets enveloped in the bitter cold of Delhi’s winters.
In January this year, a plea was filed in the Delhi High Court by one such inmate, Rajeev Kumar, seeking rehabilitation of the leprosy patients rendered homeless after its August judgment. Post the judgment, Kumar, along with 40 other inmates, was back to begging on the road. A week later, the Court granted the inmates temporary relief by ordering the Delhi government to accommodate everyone back in the premises of the HLTB. However, the inmates say that nothing has happened till now.
“Most people have been living in the home for 10-20 years. With leprosy, one requires constant medication, regular checkups and ample rest. Here, we get food, shelter, medicine, etc. But what will happen after my sentence gets over and I’m thrown out?” asks Rakesh,* 27, who has been an inmate of the HLTB for six years. When asked how he ended up in the home, he narrates a story similar to that of Manoj’s*.
“My village is near Ranchi. I was getting treated in Asansol and then came to Delhi for further treatment. I came to know of the HLTB through some other patients. I went outside a temple and started to beg. Soon, I was arrested.”
In fact, this is a pattern found across inmates. Once their saza in the home got over, the inmates used to start begging right in front of the home, so that they can be arrested again and sent back inside. In the absence of any policy of rehabilitation, the oppressive law was, for some, a means to survival. With the law now being struck down, the inmates who have finished their sentences have no place to go.
The Delhi High Court’s judgment decriminalising begging was not enough, says advocate Manisha Bhandari, who appeared as counsel for Rajeev Kumar in the recent case. “The judgment essentially stopped at decriminalisation. In effect, all it did was to lessen the burden of the executive. So there are no arrests anymore, but everyone has been forced to beg on the streets again.” Bhandari will be filing an application in the Court regarding inaction by the Delhi government even after the High Court’s order.
Bhandari’s criticism is shared by Rakesh*, who believes that the judgment gave people “more freedom to beg.” He says, “It seems that, in a way, the Court wants us to beg, since this is all that we can do.” He points to a middle-aged man sitting beside us, closely listening to our conversation.
Santosh* remembers neither his village, nor his parents. His earliest memory is that of begging as a child along the railway lines of Delhi. Around twenty years back, he was arrested from the steps of a Hanuman temple in Delhi’s Yamuna Vihar and sent to HLTB. Leprosy is not his only suffering. He gets seizures, everyday.
With his sentence ending later this month, Santosh* fears for his life. “I’ll be back to begging again, what else? Where will I go in such a big city?” he asks.
There is fear of death, but a sense of comfort inside the home – that they are not alone. Asked about the services inside the home apart from food, shelter and medicine, Manoj* points to the community that the inmates have built with each other. “We know that if we die inside the home, there will be people to mourn. They will carry our lifeless bodies. They will pray for our souls. But if we die on the streets, we die alone.”
“When I was diagnosed, death seemed like a much better option than life. What this home has really given me is the feeling that I am not alone in this struggle. It gave me the will to live.”
Manoj* fears for his life, but he also fears the loss of this will. “The darkness that haunted me as a child is back.”
*Names changed on request